Bunraku Puppet Theater

I love puppetry in any form. I had the opportunity to watch one performance of Bunkaru when I was in Tokyo in late May. The concierge reserved a 7000 yens ticket(US about $74) for an afternoon performance. It was a good value. I had a center seat five rows from the stage in the National Theater in a performance that lasted five hours, with one 30 minutes and a fifteen minutes intermission. Very inexpensive by Broadway standards.

The audience was a mix of the young, middle aged  and old. The curtains was beautifully painted.  People either brought in their own snack boxes or bought them there. I remember that in the Cantonese opera theater I went to as a child(decades ago), the theater was dirty by the end of the performance, with melon seed husks, orange rinds on the floor. Venders gawk snacks and toy swords, horse whips for the kids. I’m sure such theaters nowadays are not as noisy and dirty. In the National tTheater, the audience ate very neatly!

Bunkaru combines puppetry, musical accompaniment on the Shamisen and narration. The puppets were full sized in the performance I saw. I understand that they are usually half sized. Three puppeteers operate one puppet. The chief puppeteer manipulates the head and the right arm while two lower ranked puppeteers manipulate the left arm and the legs. They are dressed in black. The lower ranked ones’ faces are covered in black, while the chief puppeteer’s’ face is not covered. I found that jarring. It’s true, he’s a star and well known to his fans. But I want the illusion of not seeing the puppeteers, who did an excellent job.  The movements were nuanced and detailed.

On the side of the stage, in the audience section, but sitting above them were the musician and the narrators, who took different roles. One narrator was a tall handsome man. I enjoyed looking at him until he spoke the dialogue! To project his voice and to convey the drama, he opened his mouth very wide as he enunciated, grimacing throughout. So did the other narrators who were not as handsome. I stopped looking at them and concentrated on the English translation through the earpiece which cost a small amount to rent.

The usual plays acted are historical stories about loyalty, conflict and emotions. I enjoyed the play but found it too long drawn out. It was slow going. But I enjoyed it nonetheless. I left at the second intermission because I wanted to return to the hotel before dark. I would have liked to see the curtain call, to see whether the lower ranked puppeteers removed their black hoods.

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